IN THE MIDST OF WINTER—and beyond

In reprinting his essay below, I introduce a dynamic new figure in the front lines of men and women dedicated to reclaiming those whose lives have been blighted by mental illness. Geoffrey W. Melada is the new Director of Communications at the Treatment Advocacy Center, the leading organization for advocacy and reform in mental-illness issues. At age 42, Geoffrey has made this the latest stop in a career staggering in its diversity and accomplishments.

He is a former assistant district attorney; a reporter for three journals; an editor; and a writer of penetrating force on topics as varied as the arts, the law, health and science, and his personal history, which includes the suicide of his father.


Geoffrey Melada

His essay “In the Midst of Winter” (originally published in the periodical Creative Nonfiction) combines several of his passions and skills. It examines the horrific ordeal of Michael Mawhinney, who as a boy was subjected to brutal sexual abuse by his father. Geoffrey encountered Michael when clerking in the Child Abuse unit of the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office. A decade later, Geoffrey could not get Mawhinney out of his thoughts. He laboriously tracked the young man to Alaska, where Mawhinney was living reclusively. He won Mawhinney’s trust and persuaded him to speak, over several fraught encounters, about what had happened to him.

Geoffrey describes this story as being about resilience. But it is about something more: it is about the near-obsessive determination and the rhetorical gifts necessary to extract one victim’s story from the galactic mass of human beings whose minds and bodies have been violated by mistreatment; and about their capacity to reclaim their souls under the truth-telling guidance of such rare paladins as Geoffrey Melada.

Michael Mawhinney

“In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.”

Albert Camus

Michael Mawhinney toyed with his food. There was a pile of grilled prawns before him, which he pushed around in circles on his plate.

“I’ve been dreading your arrival,” he said, looking up at me. Shaking his head, he asked, “How did you find me here?”

Here was Anchorage, Alaska, in the middle of winter. 

During the winter in Anchorage, it is light out for roughly six hours a day, and that light is surreal. Dim and yellow-green, it resembles neither day nor night, neither waking nor dreaming. Other things felt strange, too, like the moose that strolled down the sidewalk outside my hotel on my first morning in town. 

Indeed, Alaska is a very different place than anywhere else in the “Lower 48,” as locals call the contiguous United States. It is vast, covering 586,000 square miles. That’s more than twice the size of Texas. There are more than 70 active volcanoes and 100,000 glaciers in Alaska, the largest of which are the size of Rhode Island.

Fifty separate rock masses make up Alaska, most of which traveled north “on a rock conveyor belt” from hundreds or thousands of miles to the south and collided with the northwestern corner of North America, according to A Naturalist’s Guide to Chugach State Park, an illustrated guidebook I picked up at the Anchorage Museum.

Even Alaska ran away to become Alaska.

I had last seen Michael in Pittsburgh, nine years earlier, when he was twenty. I was a law student then, clerking in the Child Abuse unit of the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office. Commonwealth v. Gerald Mawhinney—Michael’s father—was one of the most horrific cases I had worked on. Michael had been the prosecution’s lead witness in the trial.

Almost a decade later, I wanted to know how Michael’s life had turned out. More broadly, I wanted to know how victims of childhood trauma tend to fare later in life. I had worked with many as a law clerk and later as a prosecutor, and I wondered about their fate. Were they destined to develop mental illness and other problems? My need for answers went beyond the law, beyond academics, beyond journalism. It was personal, too.

When I was sixteen, my father committed suicide. As an adult, I was still plagued by night terrors and feelings of guilt. If Michael and some of the other children I had worked with proved resilient after all they had been through, perhaps I could find hope for myself as well, and a path out of grief. 

I began by trying to find Michael.

***

Resilience—the trait that seems to determine how likely people are to transcend adversity—has been a controversial theory ever since it emerged in the 1980s and ’90s. Bright minds cannot even seem to agree on a single definition of the term. Some in the field say resilience is the absence of psychological symptoms after trauma. Other experts, like Columbia University professor of clinical psychology George A. Bonanno, say it takes more than avoiding mental illness to be resilient. 

Bonanno prefers to think of resilience as a life trajectory, as “a relatively stable pattern of healthy functioning coupled with the enduring capacity for positive emotion and generative experiences.” In other words, a resilient person, despite day-to-day fluctuations, can love and work.

Bonanno is one of a growing number of scientists who believe that most people—even those who experience an adverse childhood experience (ACE)—are likely to be resilient. In fact, Bonanno has garnered a lot of attention by arguing that resilience, rather than an adverse outcome such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), is the most common result of experiencing trauma.

After conducting numerous scientific studies of mourners and those who have been exposed to highly stressful events, including combat and the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York City, Bonanno concluded that people’s response to trauma takes one of four common trajectories. According to his research, roughly 10 percent of us experience “chronic” grief that requires therapy. Another 30 percent experience an initial spike in suffering and gradually recover. Between 50 and 60 percent remain steady. “Most people are resilient,” he says. “Humans are engineered to withstand adversity. Otherwise, humans would not have made it this far.” 

His lecture at the annual International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) conference in Philadelphia in 2013 was one of the best attended and most controversial sessions. After his talk, he ran from a small mob of scientists eager to debate him on the prevalence of resilience.

Inside an empty hotel ballroom, Bonanno explained to me why he causes such a stir at these gatherings. “This is a conference for people who love PTSD. They have a hard time not thinking that way. When I show them my graphs, they keep trying to push PTSD back in there.” But, said Bonanno, “a world in which most people develop lasting distress as a result of trauma is not the world I live in.”

David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center and a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, agrees. “The badly affected people seen by clinicians have had multiple childhood adversities. Those most likely to be resilient report just one.”

Michael Gillum, a clinician who treats survivors of childhood trauma, blasts those opinions as ivory-tower thinking. “If you’re in the academic world, doing a lot of research, you lose sight of what a lot of clinicians are saying. If you spend time with a lot of victims, as clinicians do, and talk to them, these numbers don’t compute.” 

Child-rape victims in particular, said Gillum, “do not usually transcend this sort of trauma easily.”

Gillum points to three of his current patients, all victims of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Two of them, he says, have developed drug addiction. Another, Aaron Fisher—the first victim to come forward in that high-profile case—cut himself and frequently contemplated suicide after Sandusky started molesting him at the age of eleven.  

Today, Aaron works as an umpire for children’s baseball games and as a security guard on a remote gas-drilling site. “He has good days and bad,” says Gillum. “Sometimes, he is anxious and depressed. He does have some residual PTSD symptoms.” Gillum also diagnosed Aaron with conversion disorder, a rare syndrome in which the mind converts psychological distress into physical symptoms. 

Dr. Judith Cohen, medical director of the Center for Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, acknowledges Gillum’s point about the difficulty of relying on statistical models. “There is no one prototypical child, no one answer, and no one description that fits all. I have seen many children who have ten different traumas who do beautifully and some who do not.

“With a single traumatic event, some kids don’t do well. We’re still trying to untangle that.”

***

Finding Michael wasn’t easy. The prosecutor on his case, attorney Dan Cuddy, quit the DA’s office in 2007 and joined a law firm specializing in railroad litigation — about as far as one can get from trying child-rape cases.

While Cuddy had no contact information for Michael, and neither of us had access to the district attorney’s files any longer (I quit the office in 2011 after a five-year stint as a prosecutor), he remembered which local police department had handled the investigation, as well as the lead detective’s name. After a current supervisor in the DA’s office made a call on my behalf, the Ross Township police were willing to retrieve the case file from storage for me. But it contained no addresses or phone numbers for Michael Mawhinney.

The trail had run cold.

I called Cuddy back, hoping to jog his memory further. He remembered that Michael’s mother, long since divorced from Gerald Mawhinney, lived in Alaska. I ran a Google Images search of “Michael Mawhinney.” A Facebook profile picture of a man who appeared to be in his late twenties, holding a coffee cup, flashed across the screen. The man in the picture was wearing a winter hat, and it was hard to make out his face. On the sleeve of the coffee cup was a logo: “Middle Way Café, Anchorage.”

I googled the Middle Way Café, scribbled the phone number down on a yellow legal pad, then called and asked to speak to the manager. When the manager got on the phone, I asked him if Michael Mawhinney was an employee there. He informed me that Michael used to work there, but that he had quit his job only two weeks before. From the man’s tone of voice, I could tell there had been a falling out between them. He offered to call Michael, but he would not give me Michael’s phone number. After we hung up, I thought to myself, I’ll never hear from Michael Mawhinney.

Five minutes later, he called me from Alaska.

After I explained the article I was intending to write about resilience, Michael agreed to a phone interview. For the next four months, I tried calling and texting him to set up an interview, but he mostly ignored my messages. When he did respond, he would invariably ask for a postponement, explaining that “summer is the busy time in Alaska,” a statement I would later confirm when I went there and spoke to other residents. When you’re hunkered down for a long Chekhovian winter, you want to fill the fleeting summer with as much activity as you can.

Still, I sensed Michael was avoiding me, and I could understand why. When the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gave me a grant to travel to Alaska to track Michael down for a face-to-face interview, I was relieved when he confirmed that he would meet me in Anchorage.

When I walked into the Suite 100 Restaurant in January and found Michael sitting alone at a booth, looking pensive, pale, and skinny as a stick, I was not at all surprised to hear that he’d been dreading my arrival. When I explained to him that our interview could one day be published, and his story widely read, he looked like he would throw up.

I reassured him that I would be in Alaska for several more days and that he could take another night to think about whether to be interviewed. I put my notebook away and we began to talk like regular people. I took out my phone and showed him a recent picture of Dan Cuddy. He studied it for a long time, smiling.

Here was an adult who had believed Michael’s story and had fought for him. As a surrogate father figure, Cuddy had earned Michael’s trust. I was beginning to see that I had gained some of that trust by extension, as Cuddy’s former law clerk. Slowly, Michael began to relax and eat his dinner, and then he told me he was ready to go on the record. Over the next four hours at the restaurant, he began to unfurl his story.

“Seeing you again brings up a lot of good feelings, and also bad ones,” he told me. “You’re asking me to remember the past I’ve tried to lock in a vault. But as much as I’ve been dreading your arrival, I needed you to come here. I feel it’s about time a reporter is asking me about this story.”

Michael Mawhinney was roughly six years old when his father began molesting him by performing oral sex on him. At the time, they were living in Texas, along with Michael’s mother and younger sister. Michael’s parents later divorced, and Gerald Mawhinney was granted custody of Michael. They would eventually move to the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh. For nearly ten years in all, Gerald Mawhinney forced oral and anal sex on and took nude photographs of his son.

Michael came forward to authorities in 2001, when he was seventeen, and the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office chose to prosecute the abuse that had occurred while Michael and his father were living in the jurisdiction, a roughly three-year period starting when Michael was twelve. 

During the prosecution’s case, Michael testified that at the urging of police, he had worn a wire to capture his father’s confession. Gerald Mawhinney didn’t take the bait the first time, when his son called him on the phone. The second attempt, a coffee meeting at Ross Park Mall, a crowded shopping center, also failed.

But the third try was a success. Michael visited Gerald Mawhinney at his apartment, “where my father felt safe and in control of everything, in control of me.” Yes, I molested you, Gerald Mawhinney told his son—and the police listening in from an unmarked van parked across the street—“but at least I taught you what good sex is.”

Courtrooms in the Allegheny County Courthouse are generally raucous places, but during Michael’s testimony, judge John A. Zottola’s courtroom was silent, save for the humming of the air conditioner in the window. While Michael described for the judge the years of rape and forcible oral sex he had endured at the hands of his father, Gerald Mawhinney scowled at him from the defense table.

On cross-examination, Mawhinney’s court-appointed defense attorney, a bulldog in a Brioni suit, came charging at Michael: “You liked it, didn’t you, the sex with your father?” Michael recoiled in the witness chair, stunned. But he held up on the stand.

After Michael finished testifying, Attorney Cuddy led him into the hallway to tell him that he would never have to speak publicly about the abuse again. “I made him repeat that fifteen times until I believed it,” Michael remembered. When Cuddy returned to the courtroom, Michael sat on a wooden bench in the hallway overlooking a sunny courtyard. 

I stopped at that bench before heading back into the courtroom. “I think you are the bravest man I have ever met,” I told Michael. 

Michael’s father was convicted of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault, and other related offenses. Three months later, he was sentenced to a prison term of ten to twenty years. Michael did not attend the sentencing hearing.

***

When he was fifteen, Michael fled his father’s one-bedroom apartment north of Pittsburgh to live with his mother in Anchorage. Although free from his father, he still wore heavy emotional chains. He felt depressed and ashamed. He dropped out of high school and began abusing alcohol and drugs — “weed, acid, ecstasy, and psychedelics, anything I could get my hands on.”

When he was sixteen, his mother sent him to a fully locked down drug rehabilitation center in Boise, Idaho. He was there for nine months and spent his seventeenth birthday in rehab. Looking back on that time, he said, “I was on such a self-destructive path. I was suicidal. I just wanted to sink into non-existence. Without rehab, I don’t think I would have made it.”

In rehab, Michael spent a lot of time trying to make sense of what had happened to him. Every day in rehab, he asked himself, “Why me?” Eventually, he realized that there was no point in asking the question any longer. 

Still, life is a daily struggle. “I have feelings as strong now as I did ten years ago,” he told me at the restaurant. “At some point tomorrow, I may feel that I can’t take it anymore and want to say goodbye and check out of this life. That thought will cross my mind.

“What I went through had a serious impact on me. Sometimes I hit a wall. But I know I have to keep moving. That’s my motto. Keep moving. The longer I am down, the harder it is for me to get back up. So it is important for me to keep moving.”

After getting out of rehab, Michael followed his mother when she moved from Alaska to Presque Isle, Maine, for the sake of a new boyfriend. But Maine, some eight hundred miles away from Pittsburgh, still felt too close to his father, whom he still feared, even once Gerald Mawhinney was behind bars. So, at age twenty-one, without a job or a plan, Michael packed all of his belongings into a rusty Subaru and headed back to Alaska, a place he associated with endurance, independence, and the ability to make a fresh start in life.

The morning after our dinner, Michael sent me a text message to say that he’d decided to fully participate with my story. He even joined me on a Saturday hike up Hatcher Pass, a 3,886-foot-tall mountain pass in the Talkeetna Mountains north of Anchorage, near Wasilla, the hometown of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. That morning, we met for coffee at Kaladi Brothers, a chain of popular coffee shops in the area. Michael brought his live-in girlfriend, Rosie Klouda, to meet me.

The twenty-six-year-old college student with a shock of red hair and piercing brown eyes studied me closely and was slow to warm up. I could tell she was being protective of Michael. The couple met when they were both working at Middle Way Café, where he “taught me how to make coffee,” she said. Hearing this, Michael smiled a guilty smile. “I turned her into a coffee snob,” he said. Indeed, they had brought their own coffee from home to the coffee shop. Rosie at least bought an apple fritter, which she fed Michael with her hand.

After coffee, Michael and I said goodbye to Rosie and headed north in my SUV. As we drove, I saw Mt. McKinley (now officially renamed Denali—“the Great One” in the Alaskan tongue of Athabascan) out of the driver’s side window. The highest peak in North America, the mountain stands at a staggering 20,310 feet. Seeing Denali sparked a memory for Michael, who leaned over to tell me that, when he moved here on his own from Maine, “I cried, thinking about all the metaphorical mountains I had climbed in my life and would still have to climb.”

For Michael, one of those metaphorical mountains, after getting sober, was to discover healthy sexuality.

Part of his abuse had consisted of early and ongoing exposure to pornography. “While I was with my dad, we watched a lot of porn. I continued to watch porn after escaping from him. I think I might have [developed] an addiction to sex, but I was much too shy, ashamed of my body, and awkward to have sex with a girl. So I developed an addiction to porn.” Having a serious girlfriend has helped him to break his pornography addiction, he said. “Still, I have developed a love/hate relationship with sex. I love having sex, but oftentimes I find it difficult to take control. I was never really the initiator in a sexual situation, more often the follower.

“Something that still sticks with me today is the fear of sounding like my dad. I’m afraid that if I let go too much, I might say something to a woman that my dad would say to me,” he said. “That fear has faded significantly during my two most recent relationships. The more I learn how to really make love, the more confident I become.”

Beyond learning healthy sexuality, Michael has faced other challenges. To his shame, he is both a high-school and college dropout, having withdrawn from junior college in the first year. “It was a new place and not easy for me to make friends,” he said. “Still very early in my recovery process, it was difficult for me to adapt to a new environment. I reacted with fear and doubt, and eventually ran away.” Today, he wishes he could complete his education, “but there is still a fair amount of fear, fear of failure.”

Making friends has been challenging for Michael, as it has been for other survivors I’ve talked with. Many have trust issues and struggle with relationships. “You can’t expect others to understand unless they’ve been through this experience,” said Alexandra Colicchie, a child-rape survivor whose case I prosecuted back in 2009. It’s a catch-22: research suggests that strong relationships can be a factor in supporting resilience.

Michael’s childhood trauma has made him intolerant of people’s complaints about life’s petty annoyances. “I do sometimes find it difficult to listen to their drama. As much as I would like to tell them to shut their mouths and realize how good they have it, it’s best for me to be sympathetic and listen.”

Michael attempts to regulate his emotions with the help of exercise. He bicycles to work every day, even when the temperature drops to five degrees Fahrenheit. 

In the summer, he often takes thirty-mile-long hikes along Alaska’s Eagle River Trail with Rosie and her father. Fording the Eagle River means wading waist-deep in frigid, rushing water. “We lock arms, everybody’s in pain, and it gives me a sense of joy. We are all miserable. But we’re all in it together. It’s so cold we can’t feel our legs. This is what they call the ‘hiker’s high.’ You might have an injury, but you keep moving. You take that struggle and turn it into something good.”

At other times, Michael prefers to hike alone in the Chugach Mountains bordering Anchorage to the east. On these solitary excursions, Michael may see golden eagles, grizzly bears, gray wolves, red foxes, caribou, boreal owls (“they don’t like to be stared at”), bald eagles, or ptarmigan.

The ptarmigan, Alaska’s state bird, sports a mottled red-brown body and white wings. According to A Naturalist’s Guide to Chugach State Park, its call has been interpreted to sound like either “look out–look out” or “go back–go back.” 

I asked Michael about the ptarmigan’s cry, whether he is tempted to heed its advice and give up. I chose this moment to remind him of his father’s boast that he had shown Michael the meaning of “good sex” by abusing him as a child. “How does a child survive that kind of trauma?” I asked.

Hearing this, Michael lurched forward in the passenger seat. His pale cheeks turned purple-crimson, the color of a crowberry. “I had forgotten that. I must have completely blocked that memory. My father did say that. Who would believe it? It sounds so incredible. Sometimes, I can’t believe it happened to me.” We drove on in silence.

After another ten miles, I pulled over at a gas station. Michael pointed to a large sign on the center of the door. “There’s my answer to your question,” he said.

The sign read: “Keep Moving.”